The Case of the Ismailis of Rural Iran
LONDON • NFW YORK
LONDON • NFW YORK
In association with
The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Mysticism and the Plurality of Meaning
Context as a Sanctuary for the Plurality of Meaning
This essay illustrates how the diversity of interpretation of the Qur’an and of devotional poetry reposes, or finds sanctuary, in the oral context. This raises a much larger issue, namely the role of oral context in contemporary life.
We live in a paradoxical age. In the realm of scholarship, the text is supreme, while in the public realm, television is ubiquitous. Both features of the intellectual landscape conspire to reduce the importance of context. In this connection, Joshua Meyerovitz has broken new ground in his study of the implications of television for society. Instead of focusing only on the content, he examines television as a medium, and takes his analysis well beyond that of Marshall McLulian. His basic point is that, unlike television, a book which has to be obtained by individual purchase or borrowing is not accessible to everyone at any one time. Moreover, the privacy offered by the closed door protects parents from exposing their conflicts and concerns to their children. There are rules for access to the book (literacy, technical proficiency, age), and until recently in Western society at least, there have been rules that determined discourse in various contexts.
Television, on the other hand, has broken all the bounds of context. This is because, through investigative reporting and situation comedies, television shows the ‘off-stage’ behaviour of politicians and public figures, as well as that of parents, whose errors, concerns and private discussions are presented not only to any member of the family who can switch the machine on, but also to the entire family cluing together in one room. This phenomenon, suggests Meyerovitz, has exercised profound social and psychological effects. In American Political life, one notes a greater concern with visual criteria such as appearance and ease of manner rather than with intellectual criteria in the judgment of politicians. In family life, the breaking of the bounds of context has resulted in a decrease in the authority of parents over children. In ordinary discourse, this trend has blurred distinctions between formal and informal speech. Finally, a blurring has taken plate in the way males and females dress or cross-dress. ‘What is of particular interest here is the suggestion that the appreciation of context is disappearing in modern society. More and more, things are expected to be the same to everybody. Plurality is primarily in the choice offered by numerous TV channels.
Over the last few decades there also appears to have been a resurgence of religious movements that insist upon single and literal truth of the religious text as the unchanging core of the faith. Debates about the creation of the world as described in the Bible hinge on the scientific validity of the age of the earth or of the universe; debates about the creation of man hinge on whether Darwin or the Bible is right. The spread of printed media, on the other hand, has increased the perception that what is written is more important and more permanent than what is oral. What has retreated from the general arena of religious belief are the notions that a religious text can have layers of meaning that coexist with their respective standards of validity, that religious narrative can be understood through literary analysis and can be appreciated for the power of the image without losing its link with the divine.
The extraordinary power of the text lies in the simple fact that it can survive context, that is, it can outlast the time and place of the verbal utterance. Moreover, it turns the act of reading into a special, personal event, which allows for a unique and flexible encounter between the author who creates a world and the reader who enters it — as anyone who has sat in an armchair with a good book can confirm. Finally, a text can fix and enforce reality. All three features of the text are particularly important for the preservation and development of culture.
The fact that the text can survive the verbal utterance means that it can widen intellectual discourse and, more generally, it can perpetuate civilisation long after its living bearers have disappeared. Perhaps the single greatest defining moment of a civilisation is the appearance of writing. For instance, it is difficult o exaggerate the importance to Islamic civilisation of the moment when al-Farabi chanced upon an Arabic translation of Aristotle in a bookshop. That started such an opening of the mind, such a centuries-long conversation, such a quickening of culture! This episode makes one ponder how fragile is the text: it is on paper so thin, so tearable, so burnable, so susceptible to the corrosion of time and the elements. The medieval city of Baghdad was renowned for its cultural splendours under the Abbasids; yet so little remains of it that scholars today are unsure of its configuration. But the ideas, the poetry, the philosophy that its citizens produced in its days of glory, have survived the centuries of the rise and fall of cities and empires to come down to us on mere sheets of paper.
The text inscribes reality in several ways. A novel creates a world that you, as a reader, can enter. Moreover, this fictional world, upon entry, becomes your world; and if the novel is a great one, like all great works of art it will push open the boundaries of your world and force you, for example, to see life differently, or to understand human motivation better. For evidence of the immense potential of the text one need only look at the lengths to which authoritarian regimes will go to punish independent-minded writers. A Russian once said that if a hundred years from now the question is asked, ‘Who was Brezhnev?’ the answer will be, ‘He was someone who lived in the time of Solzhenitsyn.’
In the realm of daily action, the text can also enforce reality, especially where the rule of law prevails. No lawyer or businessman needs reminding of the value of the phrase, ‘Get it in writing!’
Context is more difficult to define. To put it most simply, context is what is said to whom within a particular boundary. This boundary is usually physical space, such as a room in which people can talk in privacy. Context can also be invisible, such as a language shared only by some of the people present or. more subtly, words, hints or gestures understood by only a few. The most crucial feature of context is that it is created by a boundary of some sort. A text is an object, whereas a context is a situation. A text is fixed once it is inscribed, while context is fluid. Control over a text is ultimately limited because it can be disseminated and distributed almost indefinitely. Control over a context is by definition much more effective. Text works by dissemination, while context works by closure. Context tends to form boundaries of groups, whereas text tends toward informing everybody.
An essential complement to the poetic and historical texts of a community is lived understanding, for it is the latter which awakens meaning. Mystical thought and discourse can only be understood properly in the orality that surrounds and protects the layers of meaning that a great poetic text renders possible. It is essential to preserve such a plurality of meaning because it befits the diversity of human beings and offers the gradations of insight that are vital steps in the journey towards God.
Towards a Pluralistic Notion of Muslim Civilisation
The argument for a plurality of meaning goes much further than its role in the vitality of mystical thought. It speaks to the very idea of Islam that we entertain. To speak of there being one single set of ideas or system of thought called ‘Islamic’, or ‘Ismaili’ for that matter, is a monolithic fantasy that pervades much of current thinking on Islam as a phenomenon.
To encompass a plurality of meaning within Islam means we must reconsider the concept of diversity in Muslim societies. Diversity in Islam is not some essence that has been contaminated by local differences or foreign influences. Muslims from the very beginning have been in constant and creative interaction with local traditions and regional cultures. Diversity is therefore a measure of breadth and tolerance rather than a problem that calls for explanation or a return to the centre. But respect for diversity, however important as a starting point, cannot serve as the sole objective of religious thought.
The Muslims of today have barely begun the major task of grappling with the vast social, technical and intellectual transformation that has gripped the world in the last three centuries. The mystical, the legal and the rational-intellectual each have a role to play in this task, each with its strengths, each reliant on the others to compensate for its weaknesses. The legal minded dimension in Islam is required to the extent that the law helps provide some parameters for the religious community and a foundation for norms of justice and fairness within the various Muslim communities. However, the rational and legal domains cannot satisfy the soul searching for the truth behind the promise of the Qur’an, that having come from God, so we shall return.
Neither of these two domains can attend to the need for freedom in individual interpretation, or offer the succour of divine love that the great poets have spoken of with such inspired longing. But the mystic, in his suspicion of everyday rationality, if unrestrained, can have a corrosive effect on human advancement in knowledge and technology which rests on a commitment to rational and empirical tools of inquiry. The rush for mystical certainty can short-circuit the task of individuals, as much as of a civilisation, to cope with a changing world. On the other hand, when the mystic points to the divine as the source of knowledge, we should be in awe of the intuition that is the fountainhead of creative thought, be it in the mathematical equations of Albert Einstein or in the fertile imagery of Jalal al-Din Rumi. The example of the mystic can inspire us to bow our heads in humility Whenever we approach such boundaries of human reason.